Making a Traditional Sport Part of a New Community

For Latin American immigrants, soccer leagues are an important part of weekend socializing, college recruiting

THE sun beats down on a field in Anacostia Park on a cloudless Saturday afternoon. Men clad in silky orange and red uniforms and kneepads pace the sidelines, impatient for the signal to start. Cars pull up and children and picnic baskets quickly fill the sidelines.

For a newcomer, an ordinary soccer game is about to begin.

But for the thousands of Latin American immigrants who show up each week in fields across the city, this game they call futbol is much more significant. For them, it is a time to socialize, to play with their children, to forget about everyday problems, and - most of all - to experience a taste of home.

Some crowd members knew each other in their home villages in El Salvador. Some of the athletes played professional soccer for the countries of Ecuador, Chile, and Guatemala. All remember fondly the large role the sport played in their lives before they immigrated to the United States.

"First, I missed my family, then I missed my friends, then I missed my sport," says Conrado Aguilar, a league manager who immigrated here from El Salvador in 1976.

At that time, there were only three soccer leagues in the area. Now there are 12 Hispanic leagues, more than 150 teams, and 4,000 players.

Carlos Alfredo Ortega, breathing hard as he talks during a brief break in the game, says he played professional soccer in his native Ecuador. Nothing short of an emergency keeps him from missing his regular Saturday game.

As he rejoins the game, Mr. Ortega plays no less competitively for this amateur league than he did as a professional player. He makes a blur of red and orange as he dashes across the field, shouting orders to his teammates.

Latin American immigrants bring a strong network of support for soccer with them, says George Lidster, men's soccer coach at George Washington University, who regularly scouts local games for recruiting prospects.

"Often, they have a father, brother, uncle, and cousins who play. They follow that soccer tradition," he says.

Many start at such an early age that by the time they are 16 they play as well as some professionals, Mr. Lidster says. "They've grown up kicking a soccer ball around. They pick up the sport like Americans pick up basketball," he says.

DURING his five years at George Washington University, Lidster has recruited six Latin American players from area teams. Last year a Guatemalan student became the school's all-time high scorer.

Ruben Munoz, a league manager, recalls as a small boy happily carrying the athletic bag of his father, a professional soccer player in El Salvador.

"Sometimes if I came onto the field first, and my father was still inside [the stadium], the crowd would start yelling his name," he says.

The support inspired Mr. Munoz, to pursue the game of soccer as well. If he had stayed in El Salvador, he says, he would likely have followed his father's path to the professional leagues.

Here in Washington, he was the star player of local leagues for years. Now an injured knee forces him to make do with cheering from the sidelines and playing pick up games with his son.

Ruben Munoz Jr. is going to be the next soccer star of the Munoz family, his father boasts. During the last year - his first of play - Ruben Jr. has established himself as a key member of the team, scoring 14 goals in six games.

Then, as if on cue, the young Ruben whizzes by in pursuit of the black-and-white ball that preceded him. He is five years old.

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